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Up, up and away
Helium is the second most abundant element in the Universe. Yet it is running out on Earth. This inert gas is useful in a variety of scientific fields, especially in MRI scanning, nuclear fusion and lighter than air travel. New technology is allowing us to recycle and conserve the gas for the future.
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Helium is sourced by the natural radioactive decay of certain rocks. It bubbles up through cracks in the Earth, mixes into the air, and eventually leaks from the top of the atmosphere into outer space. This means the best source is natural gas. Quentin Cooper visits Air Products, one of the world's biggest buyers and sellers of the gas, as lorry loads of liquid helium are delivered from fields in Algeria.
Helium is the only thing that stays liquid at a temperature low enough to cool super-conducting magnets, like the ones in MRI scanners, and also cool enough to be used in the Nuclear Fusion industry. Quentin talks to Siemens in Oxford (formerly Oxford Magnet Technologies) about the use of the gas in MRI and how the pioneering work with BOC has developed new methods of conserving and recycling the gas. He talks to leading researchers at EFDA (European Fusion Development Agency) about the use of the gas in nuclear fusion.
Most people will be aware that helium is lighter than air, which makes it perfect for airships. Quentin visits the site of the hangars where the original R101 and R100 were built in the early part of the 20th century and where ATG, the new incarnation of the industry, is developing this century's generation of airship.
Helium has two isotopes, the more abundant Helium-4 (2 protons, 2 neutrons) and the much rarer Helium-3 (2 protons, 1 neutron). Some researchers are particularly interested in the potential use of Helium-3 as source material in nuclear fusion. There's a large supply of this version on the Moon and scientists (including Apollo Astronaut Harrison Schmitt) are seriously considering mining the Moon's surface for supplies. The returns could be enormous - it is estimated that there's enough Helium-3 to source enough power for the entire world for 90 years.
Finally, Quentin talks to Professor Grigori Volovik, whose book The Universe In A Helium Drop, speculates that the element reveals many secrets of the universe itself - from quantum physics to an understanding of gravity, the big bang and black holes.
|BBC Science & Nature|
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